Comparative Data

Last updated March 2010.

It is established practice in research on higher education to compare key statistics and measures of institutional health and performance for a given college to the norms found among one or more sets of colleges that are peers to the one being studied.

This places a premium on having at least one good set of peer colleges within whose norms to place Vassar’s vital statistics. Vassar has had at least one set for many years. However, a number of slight variations on this set existed, and this lack of standardization of at least one primary reference set has made good comparative studies difficult. Since the fall of 2007, the Office of Institutional Research has worked to establish one set of primary reference colleges that Vassar would employ for many important studies. This now standard set of 21 colleges (including Vassar) excludes only one college that has been used in the past in at least one comparative study (of faculty salaries: Dartmouth). This school is not a good peer to Vassar because of its much larger size, its graduate programs, the extent of federal grant support, etc.

However, there is no such thing as a perfect comparative set of peer schools. The set of 21 colleges does not contain all of the colleges that are genuine peers to Vassar. Using other sets of peer colleges can often provide illuminating findings. Therefore, use of one or more additional sets of peer colleges can be helpful.

This is especially true when the best data, or the only data, on a given topic are available only for some other set of schools. For example, the best comparative studies of financial aid are based on data from a set of schools known as COFHE, the Consortium of Financing Higher Education. COFHE is an organization with invitational membership including 31 of the most highly selective liberal arts colleges and universities. While Vassar is not a full member of COFHE, we do participate regularly in several COFHE research projects, including the annual study of financial aid statistics (“The Bluebook”). The data from this study are confidential and cannot be released outside the set of participating colleges and universities. Colleges do not report the data included in “The Bluebook” to any external agency, which are therefore not available from any source outside COFHE. Besides Vassar, there are four other schools that are not full members of COFHE but participate in “The Bluebook”: Bowdoin, Colby, Middlebury and Tufts. For all financial aid comparative studies, Vassar uses the “COFHE Colleges (13) Plus Four.” (We exclude Tufts from our comparative group for much the same reason that we have excluded Dartmouth from the set of 21 Peer Colleges.)

COFHE also does a study every 4 years of non-faculty staffing, in which Vassar participates and uses the results for comparative purposes. This study sometimes includes colleges other than the COFHE Plus Four group.

21 Primary Reference Colleges

  • Amherst College
  • Barnard College
  • Bowdoin College
  • Bryn Mawr College
  • Colby College
  • Colgate University
  • Connecticut College
  • Franklin & Marshall College
  • Hamilton College
  • Haverford College
  • Middlebury College
  • Mount Holyoke College
  • Oberlin College
  • Smith College
  • Swarthmore College
  • Trinity College
  • Union College
  • Vassar College
  • Wellesley College
  • Wesleyan University
  • Williams College

The 13 COFHE Colleges

  • Amherst College
  • Barnard College
  • Bryn Mawr College
  • *Carleton College
  • Mount Holyoke College
  • *Pomona College
  • Smith College
  • Swarthmore College
  • Trinity College
  • Wellesley College
  • Wesleyan University
  • Williams College

Plus Four:

  • Bowdoin College
  • Colby College
  • Middlebury College
  • Vassar College

* not in the 21 Primary Reference Group


IPEDS is the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. It is a system of interrelated surveys conducted annually by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) for government records. IPEDS gathers information from every college, university, and technical and vocational institution that participates in the federal student financial aid programs. The Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended, requires that institutions that participate in federal student aid programs report data on enrollments, program completions, graduation rates, faculty and staff, finances, institutional prices, and student financial aid. The financial data is based on the audited financial statements of the College (see previous slide). The IPEDS data are made available to students and parents through the College Navigator college search Web site ( and to researchers and others through the IPEDS Data Center (

Value and Advantages of IPEDS data:

  1. IPEDS is the primary data source used by most higher education researchers;
  2. Universally available for all institutions;
  3. Collected under uniform definitions and reporting standards, and thus good (not perfect) for comparisons through time and between institutions.

Potential Problems with IPEDS data:

  1. For comparing employment trends at Vassar over time, the data in IPEDS are complicated by the fact that we have not always counted all members of the same groups of employees in the same categories; for example, until 1999 non-tenure track faculty and some coaches were not included in the faculty FTE count;
  2. When comparing Vassar to other institutions, there will not be perfect consistency about where some employee groups are counted; for example, librarians may count as administrators in some colleges and faculty in others;
  3. In reporting financial data derived from the audited financial statements, institutions may use varying procedures for distributing centrally budgeted costs, such as information technology or plant operating and financing costs. Differences in methodology for these two very significant categories can skew the data when restated by programmatic activity.

These problems result from decisions made at one point in time about how best to classify information without concern for the ways that future changes in reporting might affect the long-term consistency of data over time.

Common Data Set

The Common Data Set (CDS) initiative is a collaborative effort between the higher education community and publishers, including the College Board, Peterson's Guides, and US News and World Report. The goal of the CDS is to improve the quality and accuracy of information reported by colleges to guidebooks, media (e.g., U.S. News), and all others involved in a student's transition into higher education. The CDS also reduces the burden on colleges of compiling and reporting information by providing a single comprehensive reporting instrument used by all primary guidebook publishers. It also greatly improves the quality of information reported by asking questions in a standard fashion with precise data definitions. Common Data Set items and definitions regularly undergo broad review, and may change slightly from year to year. All CDS data are fully in the public domain.

Information included in the CDS:

  • Section A General Information
  • Section B Enrollment and Persistence
  • Section C First-Time, First-Year (Freshman) Admission
  • Section D Transfer Admission
  • Section E Academic Offerings and Policies
  • Section F Student Life
  • Section G Annual Expenses
  • Section H Financial Aid
  • Section I Instructional Faculty and Class Size
  • Section J Degrees Conferred

The Common Data Set will be available shortly through the Institutional Research web site.

Three factors are of particular importance when we compare ourselves to our peers in the current situation: our commitment to need-blind admission in relation to the size of our endowment, the size and condition of our physical plant, and the size of our workforce. The following charts help to illustrate how we compare to our peers on these key issues.

Follow this link to a graph that illustrates, for both our no-loan and need-blind admission policies, that Vassar has acted aggressively to provide educational access to a socioeconomically diverse student body. This is evident by comparing the percentage of our students on financial aid in relation to our wealth to those peers (in red on the graph) who have adopted a no-loan policy as well.

A benchmark for decision-making about staffing is the comparative size of faculty, administrative, and hourly staff in relation to student FTE.

Student/Faculty Ratio
Because institutions calculate student/faculty ratios in different ways, the following chart is only an approximate measure of relative faculty size.

Staff FTE to Student FTE ratios

Physical Plant
The following data help to understand the resource demands of Vassar’s physical plant relative to peers.

There are two factors that enter our planning about the resources for staffing, maintenance costs, and capital projects necessary to maintain our physical plant: its size, and its age and condition.

Benchmarking Physical Plant and B&G Operations Fall 2008

Vassar has retained Sightlines, a firm that benchmarks facilities and plant operations on college and university campuses. Sightlines has collected data on more than 230 campuses, including many peer colleges, and is providing Vassar with critical information used to evaluate conditions and operating efficiency.

The following graphs are based on financial information from 2007/08, and plant size as of June 2008. They were developed for an oral report to the Board of Trustees in 2008/09, and also shared with a number of campus committees. Buildings and Grounds administrators use the analysis summarized in these graphs to assess both capital budget plans and operating budget priorities within Buildings and Grounds Services.

Institution Location
Amherst College Amherst, MA
Bowdoin College Brunswick, ME
Bryn Mawr College Bryn Mawr, PA
Colgate University Hamilton, NY
Grinnell College Grinnell, IA
Hamilton College Clinton, NY
Mount Holyoke College South Hadley, MA
Smith College Northampton, MA
Swarthmore College Swarthmore, PA
Wellesley College Wellesley, MA
Williams College Williamstown, MA

The following charts show that, while 87% of Vassar’s space was built over 25 years ago, about 65% of that square footage can be considered over 25 years old based on the most recent major renovation of each building. The 25-year point is considered a critical life-cycle threshold for structural integrity.

New space constructed in the last ten years includes the Vogelstein Center for Drama and Film, the Ingram Wing of the Library, various additions to athletic facilities, and a number of new student apartments.

The age profile of the campus indicates that there is a concentration of space at two ends of the spectrum, but newer state-of-the-art facilities are outweighed by an accumulation of older space badly in need of renovation to address building envelopes (roofs, masonry, windows), interior systems (heating, ventilating, air conditioning, electrical, plumbing) and programmatically-driven interior renovations and finishes.

Note: The following chart does not include major work just completed or underway, including the complete interior renovation of Davison; the bathroom renovations in the older Terrace Apartments; ongoing roof/masonry work at Van Ingen, Josselyn and other locations; and the major renovation of Wimpfheimer Nursery School now underway. A combination of bond proceeds, gifts, and annual appropriations from the operating budget have allowed us to continue to make progress on the backlog of capital renewal needed at Vassar in 2008/09.

Campus profile
133 buildings - 2.3M GSF, technical complexity 2.20

Each Sightlines client estimates the cost of bringing older facilities up to current standards. In Vassar’s case, the recent estimate is higher than peers for two primary reasons. First, we know that the campus is larger than most of the schools in the peer group. In addition, we know that Vassar has an accumulation of older facilities in need of modernization and facility renewal.

The total dollar amount needed to address facility renewal, modernization, and infrastructure needs at Vassar is estimated at $280 million, higher than that of any of our peers.

Comparison of capital renewal backlog as of 2008

The following chart indicates the distribution of spending on the physical plant between fiscal years 2002/03 and 2007/08, a six-year period that saw greater reinvestment in the plant than in previous decades. Funding during this period was provided by two bond issues (2001 and 2007), generous donations from alumnae/i and friends, and to a lesser extent annual allocations from the operating budget.

While the distribution of spending has addressed all systems, a significant amount has gone toward building envelope and systems, helping to maintain the structural and mechanical integrity of buildings.

It is important to note that in FY2003, while $40 million was spent, only $25 million went into existing facilities.

Total capital spending
New construction and older facilities FY 03-08

In the next chart, Sightlines compares the level of recurring capital and one-time capital provided for investment in facilities to the target rate of reinvestment they recommend for a campus of Vassar’s size and technical complexity. Recent higher spending levels have pushed Vassar above its target investment zone, addressing the backlog of capital renewal requirements but relying primarily on long-term debt or gifts to do so.

Funds provided by regular allocations in the operating budget averaged only about $5 million per year, less than half of the recommended annual reinvestment target to keep a plant as large as Vassar’s in good condition.

Budget pressures caused by the financial and economic downturn have forced the college to reduce projected funding for plant renewal. This outlook will unfortunately increase the backlog of capital renewal projects, as illustrated in the following graph.